Chelsea’s 2014-2015 title triumph was heavily associated with Jose Mourinho’s efficient summer transfer activity. What was supposed to be a shift from the initial squad Mourinho built a decade prior challenged the Portuguese manager to build a dynasty around young, technically gifted players.
Mourinho’s main signings that summer, though, addressed some of the personnel issues Chelsea encountered subsequent to the Special One’s initial sacking. Thibaut Courtois was maturing into one of the best goalkeepers in the world, rather than the aging and error-prone Petr Cech. Filipe Luis was the best left-back in La Liga and was expected to be the left-back to continue in Ashley Cole’s footsteps and possibly enable Cesar Azpilicueta to play in his preferred right-back position.
But the biggest transfers simply catered to the biggest fears regarding the undergoing evolution at Stamford Bridge. Replacing Didier Drogba was difficult – to an extent that he returned as a third striker that season – but the club took one of many risks on Diego Costa: a key figure in Atletico Madrid’s title-winning campaign the year prior, who enjoyed his first top-class season.
Costa’s a powerful all-round striker that willingly worked through the channels, whilst combining his poacher’s instinct and pace to run beyond the defence to notch 20 league goals in his debut campaign. Stylistically, the Spanish international fit the mould of a centre-forward capable of dominating English football and easily settling into a Chelsea side that required his presence.
Cesc Fabregas, on the other hand, was the antithesis: more interestingly, he developed into one the top midfielders in the Premier League during his spell with rivals Arsenal as a youngster. Where Chelsea’s midfield of the past was physical and direct, often bullying Fabregas in central areas, the Spaniard represented a slimmer, yet technical craftsman that was capable of connecting passes from deep, or the final pass around the box to create legitimate goal-scoring chances for his teammates.
If the decision to acquire Juan Mata, Eden Hazard and Oscar didn’t highlight the stylistic shift at Stamford Bridge, Fabregas move from Barcelona did. Still, Fabregas’ familiarity with the league ensured it was less of a risk for Chelsea, and his ability to dictate matches from deep was pivotal to the Blues success subsequent to his arrival.
Although a role in a deeper midfield position was beneficial to Fabregas due to his positional versatility in central areas, the Spaniard also suffers from tactical indiscipline. Perhaps his rapid growth at Arsenal overshadowed these issues, but to be frank, Arsenal’s lack of discipline prevented Arsene Wenger’s side from challenging on a domestic and continental front in recent years.
Despite previously playing a deep role in a midfield two, Fabregas’ best seasons for Arsenal witnessed the Spaniard playing in an advanced position – 4-3-3 or 4-2-3-1 – with defensive minded players like Alex Song and Abou Diaby operating ahead of the back four. Fabregas’ recorded a team high 15 league goals and the most assists during his final season at the Emirates thus proving his threat closer to goal.
Likewise, something similar occurred during his final season at Barcelona under Tata Martino’s direct approach. Barcelona were renowned for their patient buildup and extensive spells of ball possession, but Martino was eager to add a quick, but direct element to their game which Fabregas preferred.
“This coach [Martino] lets me play the way that suits my qualities and I’m very comfortable, very happy,” Fabregas told FourFourTwo magazine following Martino’s arrival.
“On the first day – well, not the first day, but maybe the third or fourth, early on – he called me over and told me: “I want you to be the player you were at Arsenal.” And I thought: “Wow!”, because I’d always felt so good at Arsenal, so important. I’m not the No.10 exactly because things aren’t so clearly defined positionally as with Pep [Guardiola] and Tito [Vilanova], who were very focused on that. When we attack, Tata likes things to be a little more anarchic – just a little – which means that with the ball you can move away from a set position without any problems.”
Ultimately, Fabregas’ joy regarding the positional freedom he received at Arsenal and under Martino has led to his downfall at top-sides with elite managers. Fabregas’ move to Barcelona was specifically based around helping Guardiola evolve the Catalan side, opposed to the Spaniard becoming Xavi’s successor.
Sergio Busquets cemented his role at the pivot, Xavi offered similar passing and tempo-setting traits further up the pitch, while Fabregas couldn’t connect midfield and attack with his dribbling like Andres Iniesta. Nonetheless, Fabregas’ ability to locate space between the lines and goal-scoring threat around the box provided the perfect outlet to create space for the wide players and Lionel Messi, along with making late runs into the box to score goals.
Guardiola’s shift to a 3-4-3 saw Fabregas shuttle forward, and continuously interchange positions with Lionel Messi upfront. When Messi dropped deep into midfield, Fabregas received space to charge into the box, which explains why only his final season at Arsenal offered a higher goal and assist return.
But Barcelona struggled to maintain the incredible levels that led to their historic league and European title triumphs, and Fabregas received ample criticism due to willingness to instantly play forward passes. Guardiola’s teams are often maligned for their use of possession, but they heavily rely on positional and tactical structure in both phases, and Fabregas was a liability in that respect.
“We like the fact that he [Fabregas] is so mobile, but it has to be done sensibly. In the end, there is a ball and people who move, but they should move to where they need to be. We do not have a remote control to direct them from the bench,” said Guardiola.
The second half of the 2014/2015 campaign at Chelsea presented a similar challenge for the Spaniard who started the season superbly. With Nemanja Matic suffering from fatigue due to lack of squad rotation, Chelsea were being exposed and overrun in midfield zones when Fabregas pushed forward to link play.
Opposing teams located the Chelsea midfield as a weak point and targeted Fabregas’ lack of mobility and inability to maintain his position ahead of the back four, thus virtually exposing Matic. Mourinho swiftly reverted back to a 4-3-3 and a deeper defensive block, which led to a string of slow-burning one goal victories, as the freedom Fabregas and the attacking Chelsea players received was quickly sacrificed for silverware.
Guardiola and Mourinho encountered difficulties maximizing the Spaniard’s strengths due to his tactical limitations, and playing to his strengths didn’t provide silverware at the Emirates, so it’s unsurprising that Fabregas is currently fighting for a starting spot under Antonio Conte. In the past, Conte’s teams have been built to attack and renowned for their high-octane pressing, but the Italian is a pragmatist that instantly identified the personnel issues in the Chelsea side he inherited.
Chelsea sit deeper under Conte, and rely on Matic and Oscar to press opponents and maintain the side’s structure ahead of N’Golo Kante. The Blues’ transitional vulnerability has decreased and they have become much harder to breakdown, with majority of the goals conceded have been via individual mistakes and wonder-goals.
Nonetheless, Fabregas’ is definitely missed from an attacking perspective. Chelsea struggle to build attacks from deeper positions – which ultimately led to the deadline day purchase of David Luiz – and creativity is non-existent in the middle third of the field. Oscar and Matic’s pressing can create swift transitional breaks, but Conte’s side remain unconvincing when the opposition freely concedes possession.
While many had suggested Fabregas could slightly play the deep-lying playmaker role Andrea Pirlo revolutionized at Juventus, Chelsea simply don’t have the midfield shuttlers or competent defenders behind the Spaniard to provide such freedom.
“Cesc is in my plans and in Chelsea’s plans,” said Conte. “In my opinion he’s improving a lot on many aspects, above all the defensive situations. If he continues in this way, it’ll be very difficult for me to choose my midfield. But I want this from a player, putting many doubts in my mind over choosing someone else. I’m very clear with my players: when a player deserves to play, I put him in the team.”
But Fabregas’ influence in Diego Costa’s winner at Watford, along with his two goals at Leicester in Chelsea’s midweek Capital One Cup win over Leicester, mounts pressure on Conte’s decision to start the Spaniard. However, the latter scenario involved Fabregas struggling throughout the match until Conte pushed him behind Costa and relinquished the Spaniard’s defensive duties.
Fabregas’ versatility could see Conte experiment with the Spaniard in an advanced role, but until he improves in the defensive phase – in terms of positioning, work-rate and concentration – he doesn’t merit a spot in the Chelsea XI. It appears to be a recurring issue throughout the Spaniard’s career, but it’s the key issue that’s deprived Fabregas from excelling at the biggest clubs in the world.
Throughout the span of Fabregas’ career, the 29-year-old has experienced significant changes – elite managers, proactive and reactive philosophies, and positions – but nothing is more intriguing than this upcoming showdown against Wenger’s Arsenal. It’s been five years since the Spaniard and Arsenal manager have parted ways, but with the former desperately fighting for a place in the XI and the latter still unable to mount a legitimate title challenge, it appears that very little has changed.